Sunday 20 March 2011

Movie Review: The Lover (1992)

Based on the memoirs of author Marguerite Duras, The Lover chronicles an illicit affair between a teenaged French schoolgirl and a wealthy older Chinese man in 1920s Vietnam. The film is lyrical and alluring, but emotionally rather limited.

The characters do not have names. The Young Girl (Jane March) is from a poor family, her father dead, her mother struggling to run a school in rural Vietnam, her older brother abusive and drug-addicted, and her younger brother weak and submissive. On one of her trips to Saigon to attend boarding school, the Young Girl meets The Chinese Man (Tony Leung), a rich son of a business tycoon. He gives her a ride in his chauffeur-driven luxury car, she lies about her age, and soon they are having an affair. They meet regularly in his bachelor's apartment in a poor part of Saigon, making love all afternoon and sometimes all night.

The affair takes over the Girl's life, disrupting her school attendance and worsening the rift with her family. Her brother and mother are horrified that the Girl is the mistress of a Chinese man, but even more annoyed that she is not getting paid for it. The Chinese Man meanwhile is heading towards an arranged marriage, and the affair comes to an end when he gets married and the Girl heads back to France.

The Lover is a simple story with a couple of points of interest. The Young Girl is from the colonialist French theoretically attempting to dominate south east Asia, yet she plays the submissive role in the relationship with the wealthy Chinese Man, himself not in his native country. The Young Girl's dysfunctional family background helps her to throw herself into the illicit relationship, since what she is getting herself into hardly jeopardizes a happy existence.

Jean-Jacques Annaud makes the most of the Vietnam locations, capturing a lush sun-drenched country, bustling streets, ferries at over-capacity, colonialist architecture, rickshaws everywhere, and extremes of wealth and poverty. His other focus is on the endless scenes of lovemaking in the bachelor's apartment, The Lover drifting into soft-core territory and courting controversy with Jane March having just turned 18 during filming, and rumours that some of the scenes were unsimulated.

March and Leung are not required to do much emotional acting, their characters stunted by the limits of a relationship that was never going to be about much of anything other than sex. The gaps in social class, age, and ethnicity only serve to ensure that the inevitable ending is hastened. The narration, by Jeanne Moreau, attempts to inject layers of affection and love into the affair, but it is difficult to believe that any depth existed outside the imagination of a young girl, alone and far away in a foreign land.

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